Just a short introduction on terms and things that will be refered to further on in this essay. The evident social classes of the classical age from top to bottom are as follows. Primarily a Spartiate
, if you want to be pedantic is any Spartan male above the age of 30, making them a voting individual. Modern sources have refered to all Spartans (including women, despite them not being able to vote) as Spartiates, thus I have continued this widend definition. The Perioikoi
were the literal "dwellers around" who were the economic providers for the Spartans apart from the Helot slaves who farmed their kleros
(an alotment of land). Helots
are the inhabitants of the conquered tribes and city states that are then enslaved by the Spartans.
The other rather confusing structure is the governmental system. Having at the top a diarchy of kings, in combination with 28 elders above the age of 70 known as the gerontes made the gerousia, like the upper house of a bicameral level of government. This was followed by 5 Ephors who had several powers that I list further on in the essay. They were elected by acclamation from the apella or otherwise known as the ecclesia. This was the assembly of every Spartiate (the pedantic definition), this being every man above the age of 30.
The sources are listed at the end of the essay. I hope it's understandable and enlightens you as much as other on this site have done for me.
It is believed by Xenophon, one of the most prominent ancient authorities on Sparta, that Thebes defeated the military state of Sparta primarily because of religious reasons. Jason the tyrant of Thessalian Pherai warns them not to grow over confident; “for the god, it seems to me, takes pleasure in raising up the small and bringing down the great .” Xenophon also states in his Hellenica that it was because Sparta had occupied the Theban acropolis in the peacetime of 382. This was breaking an oath sworn in the name of the gods to leave the other Greek cities independent, thus committing grand perjury in religious context. This was one of the examples that Xenophon states “could be cited from both Greek and non-Greek history to demonstrate that the gods are not indifferent to those who are impious or perpetrate unholy deeds .”
A well-regarded modern authority, Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff gives us a more politically secular reason behind Sparta’s loss. After the Peloponnesian War had ended, although Sparta was the military victor, “that victory was not complete nor decisive .” Sparta had now been issued with supremacy of the seas and thus “had to face more trouble and responsibility than other states .”
Sparta needed external support to control her empire, “so large, so scattered, so constantly disturbed .” Constant wars involved heavy losses, especially among the Spartiates. This meant the balance of Spartiates to Helots and Perioikoi was slowly being even more out weighed. Also because of Sparta’s traditionally conservative view “governors took no steps to increase their number (of Spartiates) and treated every attempt in that direction as revolutionary .” Consequently the Spartiates were too few to defend Sparta because they were commanding and “defending scattered garrisons of the empire .”
Although Plutarch tells us that marriage was compulsory. Having children was not a requirement of the family unit, “the Spartiate was not held in esteem by his fellow-citizens if he had no children .” Therefore this social norm of having children was a small but not entirely successful idea employed, that’s aim was to rise the population of the Spartiates.
Meanwhile Athens and other Greek enemies of Sparta were gaining strength. Whilst Athenian trade was restoring itself, Rostovzeff continues to say that “the former allies of Athens oppressed the Spartan garrisons and the harmosts who commanded them .” Pelopidas and his scared band (a specialised military group of Thebes) “had beaten a detachment of the Spartan invincibles .” Most probably because the Spartans still inhabited the Cadmea (the Boeotian Acropolis at Thebes.) This was then followed in 371 B.C by the Spartan defeat at Leuktra by the “over obstinate Boeotians .”
In Rostovtzeff’s book he further explains, “the Thebans owed this victory entirely to the military genius of Epaminondas .” Epaminondas’ primary reforms to the Theban infantry were to change their formation. The Spartans would have been marching into battle all in a straight line, uniform and parallel to each other. The Thebans however had an arrow shaped formation that would collapse upon the Spartans and flank them, thus obtaining victory.
Politically, since the apella (much like our senate) “voted only on business submitted to them by ” their elected council of Ephors, “these individuals (the apella) had no power to initiate legislation .” Thus although this socialist type of government seemed generally run and owned by the society as a whole, there is certainly aspects of an aristocracy. This is in respect to how the two kings were chosen as the diarchy, being the heads of the two leading noble families of Europontidae and Agiadae. As well as the Gerousia of elders being above the apella but not as powerful, also being drawn from noble families. Therefore although as in a socialist state the individual’s property and rights are that of the society and no one is above another this is somewhat contradicted by the aristocratic ruling by the diarchy and Gerousia. “All social and economic relations were based on absolute subordination of the individual to the state ,” but it depended on which individual you were (noble or common), to how far below the state you were.
This can further be discussed as being a weakness in Spartan society. That although there was social equity between Spartiates, certainly not in regard to the Helots and Perioikoi, this equity was worth nothing if the individual could not be represented as an equal against other Spartiates such as the nobility. I speak of the apella that represented each Spartiate as an equal, but was dominated and directed by 5 Ephors that if they wished could veto any decision made by the apella, Gerousia or indeed the king. This dominant group could even arrest the king; “it is lawful for the Ephors to do this to the king,” (Thucydides). Therefore although certain Spartiates were regarded as equals, not everybody was, for the Ephors were far above any individual, including the King.
Spartiates were forbidden to engage in trade and industry. Therefore the Perioikoi monopolized all business of the state, making themselves not politically powerful but economically able to rule the country in certain aspects. Rostovzeff states, Perioikoi “mined in the iron mines of Laconia; they manufactured weapons for the army, implements for agriculture and articles for domestic use .” In this sense it is viable to say that the Spartiates were somewhat dependant upon the Perioikoi, because the Perioikoi apart from supporting the military with weapons and provided the agricultural providers of the helots with “implements” to harvest with, the Perioikoi also controlled all passes and waterways. The Perioikoi could have easily isolated Sparta.
However this relationship between the Perioikoi and the Spartiates was symbiotic in that the Spartiates protected the Perioikoi. Apart from this the Spartiates controlled the grazing land that the Perioikoi used to monopolize Spartan trade. Although Andrewes states “we have no figures to show the proportions…there is no doubt that the Perioikoi were the more numerous population .” It is then conclusive to say that the Spartiates and Perioikoi were dependent upon each other, but in regard to the dominant Spartiates, this was a weakness to be dependant upon a subordinate class, that could so easily revolt with economic and people power.
Andrewes continues to say, Sparta feared “that foreign goods would bring with them new demands and new ideas .” For this reason the currency of Sparta was known as heavy iron rods. Xenophon enlightens us with perhaps a slight hyperbole, “a thousand drachmas would fill a wagon .” These iron rods were not recognised by other city-states as currency and thus foreign trade by the use of money was impossible. These iron rods however discouraged stealing, by making it quite difficult .
This isolation could have been a benefit for Sparta. An iron curtain if you will, that forbade foreign ideas in sacrifice for domestic safety. This although could have also been a burden and a failure in that Sparta could not evolve past her borders. Since foreign ideas were not introduced no juxtaposition of Sparta’s ideas and other states’ could take place. Because of this impossibility the evaluation of Spartan society was impossible and so therefore the development of Spartan society was severely crippled. We will never know if this disability of conservative Sparta would have been either a benefit or burden for society, only that depending on the circumstances, it could have been either.
The women of Sparta have been regarded as the most free and with liberty of the age. Robin Barrows finds that Sparta would've be the ideal ancient society that “members of Women’s Liberation movements today would have admired .” Where “women were freed from domestic duties and treated like men .”
In two pieces of art, one an ancient sculpture of a Spartan woman and a more modern representation from Degas it can be seen that girls were athletic and equally regarded in reference to boys in some aspects of society. Degas’ painting portrays the women running in races with men. Although this may have conveyed the idea of women having no specific duty in the Spartan community, this was not intended. The object of exercising with men was to make the women strong and healthy so that they could produce children.
As Aristotle says, “nearly two fifths of the whole country is held by women .” Aristotle further criticises Spartan societies’ loss of control to women, saying, “it surely would have been better to have given no dowries at all .” Certainly it is clear that Spartan women had more power, more equity than women of other city-states. Aristotle’s paranoia led him to believe Sparta would become a gynaikokratia (government by women,) and it was because of women’s power that the greatness of Sparta declined . This government of women of course did not occur, however the short tale below should explain how and why Spartan Women were so much more powerful that those of other city states’.
Herodotus entails in his Histories how a foreigner once asked the wife of King Leonidas why Spartan women were able to influence men more than wives in other cities. “We are the only women who can control men,” she replied,” because we are the only women who give birth to men .”
Plato criticized Sparta’s “legislator” for “he mustn’t just regulate the men and allow the women to live as they like and wallow in expensive luxury .” Euripides an Athenian playwright in his "Andromache", thought that no Spartan girl could “grow up modest ”, running around with bare thighs and loose clothes. “I call it intolerable ,” says the protagonist. Aristophanes would have agreed with Plato to a degree and Euripides entirely for Aristophanes also criticized Spartan women’s masculineand immodest appearance. In his Lysistrata Lampito (a native Spartan woman) was found by Lysistrata of Athens so have “such strength that she could strangle a bull ”.
Plutarch tells us “Spartan men were always subject to their wives and allowed them to interfere in affairs of state more than themselves did in private ones .” Because of these opinions and facts from foreign ancient authorities, it suggests to us that Spartan women could have certainly been a bad influence upon Sparta’s political affairs or have contributed somehow to the decline in society.
Because most Athenian authorities were found to be highly critical of Spartan society, it could be said that Euripides’ and Aristophanes’ views were not entirely reliable, that some form of prejudice was being exercised. Plutarch however living over 500 years after these contemporaries of the Spartan age states not as an opinion but as fact in his "On Sparta" that women did exert power over men. Plutarch living after the Athenian age of bias gives him more reliability than other sources. Therefore women certainly could have contributed to Spartan society’s weakening during the 4th Century B.C.
Sparta was such a unique city, that many contemporary sources failed to understand it. The main aspect other city-states (primarily Athens) found so baffling was the responsibility to keep such a large population under control by a group of smaller size. This “necessity ” turned Sparta “into a bleak military camp ,” or so says Fine. The majority of Athenian sources were critical against Sparta. Aristotle finds that “He (Lycurgos) made it dishonourable to buy or sell landed property, doing rightly, but allowed gifts or bequests to all who wished .” Aristotle’s main comment against Sparta “is that the land was concentrated in the hands of a few great owners, mostly women .” This leaves modern historians with a rigid and critical view of a society that defied contemporary boundaries and attempted to revolutionize the Peloponneese with their provocative yet somewhat affective ideas.
As Fine finds the necessity of keeping the helots under control a burdensome responsibility to the Spartiates, the Lycurgan reform’s answer to this burden on society so says Plutarch was allowing “Every year the Ephors to formally declare war on the Helots .”
This did not totally destroy the Helot’s enthusiasm to rise up and conquer their Spartiate dominators as the Messenian Helots according to A.H.M. Jones “rose to a rebellion after the great earthquake of 465, and gave substantial assistance to the Athenian landing party which seizes Sphacteria in 425 .” But Jones continues to say that there has been no proof of unrest among Laconian Helots; “very few deserted the Spartiates even when the Thebans invaded Laconia in 370 .”
Another idea employed by the Lycurgan reform to thin, (and I use the verb figuratively) the Helot population was the institution called the Crypteia. A body of young Spartiates who according to Plutarch “would spend a period of their life hiding by day and roaming the country side by night ,” in order to kill wandering helots. Therefore although other states found this imbalance of Helots to Spartiates being almost in Herodotus' view 7:1 , Sparta had reforms to control this imbalance and maintain Spartiate dominance.
The significant strength Spartan society had over all other states was the discipline of their people and the bold determination that was imbued in them from a very young age. After a male child had been born a council of elders decided whether the baby was fit to live depending on the strength or weakness displayed. Until the child was 7 they would be in the care of their mother. Plutarch expresses is best, that the next 6 years’ education was aimed at developing obedience, “perseverance under stress, and victory in battle .”
Jones in a sympathetic tone states "the boys lived very hard, slept in dormitories on rushes, which they had to cut themselves without knives", “received one garment a year, and very meagre rations .” Girls also received similar athletic and musical training to boys, in that both sexes held competitions and as in Degas’ painting, often they competed against each other. Other Greeks were “shocked at girls appearing naked in public,” as stated in Xenophon's Respublica Lacedaemoniorum.
This system of discipline expanded itself to allow successful achievers to partake in the syssitia (famous dining clubs) and fully nourished the individual to become the most disciplined and determined citizen of any city-state. To summarise this strength, “the military ethos and Spartan educational system provided a society which no longer needed the artist” (Oswyn Murray.) This educational system made Sparta’s Spartiates superior says Herodotus, with their “moral qualities, their respect for discipline, sense of honour, and spirit of sacrifice .”
Sparta, in its contemporary time was superior beyond compare. Oily Longhaired, red coated, fierce phalanx protecting the honour of their state and sacrificing themselves for Sparta. It was not the lack of art or poetry that contributed to the decline of Sparta, simply the somewhat corrupt hierarchy of the aristocracy and the isolation of a state that with direct competition could have developed so much further than just domestically. With open borders and free tourism ideas that would come with these travellers from afar would have evolved Spartan society, to perhaps become a better, more self-sufficient state.
In conclusion, the one thing Sparta will always be admired for is its egalitarian way of life that not even Athens’ Democracy could rival. This was the defining theme that Sparta had from the beginning of the Lycurgan reforms to their defeat at Leuktra. “The free were more free, and the slaves more equal then elsewhere .” - Critias
Hellenica & Respublica Lacedaemoniorum by Xenophon
On Sparta and The Life of Lycurgos by Plutarch
Politics I and II by Aristotle
Andromache by Euripides
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Histories IX by Herodotus
Sparta by A.H.M. Jones
Greece by Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff
Greek Society by Antony Andrewes
Sparta by Robin Barrow
Individual quotes from Thucydides, Fine, Critias and Oswyn Murray cited from Antiquity 2 by T. Hurley